Clarke launches charm offensive as he addresses Scots' critics

Scotland head coach Steve Clarke
Steve Clarke lifted the sombre mood in the Scotland camp [PA Media]

As Steve Clarke walked towards the podium at his media conference at the ice centre in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, he took a look at the two-foot rise to the stage and said: "This is a big step."

In the wake of the opening-day calamity against Germany and the must-not-lose game against Switzerland in Cologne on Wednesday, there was all sorts of fun to be had with a line like that, but it was probably wise not to.

Had Clarke entered to the sound of a bell ringing then it wouldn't have been out of place given the sombreness of the room he was walking into.

He sat in front of a giant banner with close-up images of some of his main men on it. Kieran Tierney, Andy Robertson, John McGinn and Billy Gilmour beamed out at us, incongruously.

Only the stern features of Scott McTominay seemed to capture the mood in the camp.

This is a job for Clarke alone

In a crisis, Scotland sent for Callum McGregor, a brilliant talker, to do the talking on Saturday and now the manager on Sunday. The big guns wheeled out to blast the doubt to kingdom come.

The fact that Clarke was here at all was an illustration of where they're at right now. Had his team performed admirably against the Germans then the head coach wouldn't have been anywhere near the media on Sunday. He'd have left one of his other coaches, or a player, to get on with it.

He remarked this was a job for him and for him alone. A charm offensive, a chance to address the criticism of him and his team while offering some hope for the rest of the group campaign - in case there were any takers.

On a run of one win in 10 games, and the concession of 26 goals, this team, and this campaign, is at a crossroads now.

They're either going to bounce back, as they have done before in Clarke's reign, or they're going to sink against Switzerland and crash out on Wednesday. Unless the bare minimum of a point is achieved in Cologne then Scotland can start packing.

There are doubts hanging over so many previously go-to players, conversations about formations and what changes he might, or needs to, make. Switzerland only piled on the pain on Saturday when looking powerful and full of goals against Hungary.

MacPhee in 'wrong place at wrong time'

Clarke's squad entered Germany with lofty, and oft-stated, notions of becoming the first Scottish team to make it out of the group phase at a major tournament. Self-belief is one thing, but they got ahead of themselves on that.

With Clarke, there were elements of mea culpa about what he said, some serious stuff, some humour.

At the end, he riffed on the stick he gave Austin MacPhee, his assistant, at the Allianz Arena. Clarke had rounded on MacPhee in the technical area in the midst of the Scottish meltdown in Munich.

"Austin just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time after we took a short free-kick rather than getting the ball into the box, as we did when we scored the goal," he said with a smile.

"It wasn't Austin's fault, because the players make the decision on the pitch. We got counter-attacked and I'm thinking, 'we've lost enough goals, Austin, we don't need to lose any more'. Then we just had a little discussion about it."

Clarke said he'd kicked the backsides of some players and given others a cuddle, the suspended Ryan Porteous being one of them after his red card against Germany. Which one did MacPhee get? "He's got long blonde hair, but I'm not going to give him a cuddle."

Striking right balance

Like McGregor on Saturday, Clarke came across well, he struck a decent balance of accepting blame for what went wrong while also sounding enough of a rallying cry ahead of Wednesday.

There was no insight on what he will alter for the Swiss, but he had his cheery face on which, to be fair, isn't necessarily a positive. You always know that things aren't quite what they should be when Clarke is smiling. A grumpier head is far more reassuring.

More than anybody, he will know that talk is cheap. It's been the mantra of his coaching life and this, unquestionably, is one of the biggest weeks in all his years in the game.

Past history tells us not to write him off. He inherited an unholy mess and brought order and optimism.

His team hit the buffers after losing to Ukraine in a World Cup play-off and again to the Republic of Ireland in Dublin. The distress flares hit the skies in the wake of those performances, but Clarke was cool and composed and Scotland came again in a major way.

So, that's where his belief in himself and his players comes from. They've been in bad places before and have found their way out.

Ultimately, that was his message on Sunday. Keep the faith. It'll be better when Wednesday comes.

Those in the Tartan Army who are so inclined will be offering up prayers that he's right.